The psychologist Daniel Goleman (with whom I coauthored the book Ecoliterate) captured the attention of millions with the publication of Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence. Ever since, we’ve been fascinated with how social and emotional intelligence are connected to people’s ability to succeed—whether in business or in school.
Yet, while we understand that empathy is the cornerstone of emotional and social intelligence, many people don’t see it as related to their own ability to be effective. To the contrary, the expression of empathy is often thought of as something that primarily benefits others.
What has been less well understood, despite a growing interest in the topic, are the ways in which empathy can be of significant benefit to you and others. This is especially true if you work on any of the many issues related to today’s pressing challenges to our economic, environmental, and societal well being—from unemployment and poor government leadership to rising healthcare costs and global warming.
But for the practice of empathy to be effective—in business, education, or social entrepreneurship—it’s important to conceive of it not as a “soft, flattering, hand-holding” sentiment but, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a “muscular empathy rooted in curiosity.”
So how, specifically, can you use empathy to be more effective in advancing change?
Here are three suggestions that are based on making the link between empathy and the core American values—leadership, innovation, and pragmatism—that we more commonly attribute to success.
1. Recognize empathy’s essential role in good leadership.
In today’s world, leadership has much less to do with the exercise of authority by an elite few than it once did. With the rise of networks, and the diffusion of power through many formal and informal systems, influence is now more often the result of effectively attracting others to our ideas or initiatives.
And a necessary first step in doing that, says Ginny Whilelaw, author of The Zen Leader, is to “become the other.” In other words, an effective leader today needs to understand the other’s perspective in order to sense what would be in his or her interest—and then show how their idea or initiative also serves that interest. Influence, in short, is cultivated by growing empathic circles of connection.
2. Harness the insights of empathy to innovate.
Great design firms understand that innovation often comes from the capacity to empathize—or to put oneself in the customer’s shoes. In other words, empathy in this context and others, is first and foremost a powerful act of imagination, as the writer Rebecca Solnit observed in her 2013 book, The Faraway Nearby.
In fact, the word “empathy,” coined only in 1909, was derived from the German term, Einfühlung. The original word was used in the field of aesthetics to describe how people come to appreciate a work of art by “feeling into it” or projecting one’s sensibilities onto it.
In the world of commerce, such acts of imagination are supported by user research—or, as some have observed, in the case of the late Steve Jobs and Apple AAPL +0.35%, an institutional empathy in which top executives are the ideal consumer.
In social entrepreneurship, empathy often plays a part in the creation of innovative solutions to complex social problems. Ashoka fellow Mary Gordon is one of the best-known for her program, Roots of Empathy, which is designed to counter the effects of parental violence and neglect. The strategy: bring babies into classrooms and teach students who “adopt” them over 27 sessions how to help care for them. The result: students develop their own capacity for empathy and other aspects of emotional and social competence.
3. Make the connection between empathy and pragmatism.
When thought about in narrow terms, empathy and pragmatism may at first appear to be polar opposites. But taking an empathic perspective can lead to some very pragmatic results because, as Scott A. Huetell, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, once said to me in an interview, “empathy is often the pivot point to action.” Applied in certain circumstances, empathy can also be a particularly powerful tool for overcoming obstacles to action.
Consider, for example, the challenge of effectively responding to global climate change. This has proven a particularly difficult issue to address, among other reasons, because reducing carbon emissions, while in humanity’s long-term interest, is not in most people’s immediate self-interest.
But taking an empathic perspective, says Huetell, can help break through the lack of motivation. For example, he suggests that one way this could be done is by connecting carbon-cutting measures to the desire to protect one’s children, or simply to being someone who wants to do the right thing for others. Such appeals to empathy, he says, can increase the motivation to take action—which, in the end, is perhaps the most American trait of all.
Read the original post on Forbes.com